Christian Doctrine and Music: How are They Connected?

Christian Doctrine and Music: How are They Connected? June 22, 2011

Hat tip to Daniel Mount (and David Bruce Murray in a subsequent comment), for inspiring this post. Daniel put up a post asking for reader feedback on whether differences among Christian denominations can influence the way a Christian song lyric is crafted. DBM commented that he’d love to see how the discussion would proceed along a slightly different line: Do denominational differences influence stylistic differences in music? So I’ve decided to take it up here on southerngospelyankee.

My immediate reaction was “Yes, of course!” Many denominations are defined by their different musical styles. Black gospel is naturally associated with charismatics, southern gospel with Southern Baptists, and contemporary P & W with mainstream evangelicals. Even among Protestant hymns, there is a huge difference between an Anglican hymn and your average Charles Wesley/Fanny Crosby (I know, having sung many of both kinds). In our family we have made a joke out of “those Anglican tunes” that are so counter-intuitive and clunkily put together that you can barely even find your way through them. Even though in all fairness there were some great Anglican writers, let’s just say that Anglican hymnody as a whole is not known for its natural, singable melodies. (We also have a joke that Anglicans can’t sing.)
So denominational differences can certainly be tied to stylistic variations in music. That much is obvious. But I think the question may have been slightly different: Do doctrinal differences have a direct causal effect on how music is written? This question is less obvious to answer. It is one thing to say that a black gospel sound is part of the charismatic tradition, or that a southern gospel sound is part of the Southern Baptist tradition. It’s another thing to say that a writer’s theological beliefs will affect the music he writes (as distinguished from the lyrics he writes). We can find plenty of examples of correlation, but what about causation?
The first thing to come to mind is that musical style  can certainly be affected in cases where denominational principles rule out certain forms of music. So if a writer comes from a background where anything with a rock sound is considered to be evil, you will never catch him writing something with “an edge.” There are musical groups who follow that principle and consequently record within very restricted musical boundaries. Some even believe that there’s evil in the back-beat.
But at the same time, I see people and churches who have wildly different music, yet essentially the same doctrinal foundation. For example, Sovereign Grace Ministries produces music with a very contemporary, wall-of-sound feel, but at the same time they are passionate about writing meaningful, biblically correct lyrics, and one of their ballads was even picked up by the Booth Brothers. As another example, I recently watched some footage from Church On the Move in Oklahoma, and I couldn’t stand most of their music they were playing. Yet their pastor’s preaching is rock solid, with a southern accent you could cut with a knife. He seems like he’d be equally at home at the little brown church in the vale. Among artists, there are obviously many Southern Baptists in southern gospel, but there are plenty in CCM too. As one example, Christian rock group Casting Crowns has worked closely with Georgia’s Sherwood Baptist Church, who made Facing the Giants and Fireproof. However, to say that their music isn’t exactly southern gospel would be putting it mildly, even though doctrinally there may not be much to separate them from Signature Sound. And for our part, we have southern gospel artists meeting CCM halfway with a “progressive” sound, some of whom even take inspiration from secular music. (Odds are you’re more likely to catch Ernie Haase listening to Michael Buble than the Inspirations.)
On the other side of the coin, I’ve seen people with different denominational backgrounds working together and making music that all sounds very similar. For example, Paul Baloche and Matt Maher are Catholic singer/songwriters, but their worship songs have been recorded and sung world-wide, and they have worked with countless Protestant worship leaders and writers.
And to top it off, there are quite a few songwriters with cuts in both CCM and southern gospel. Perhaps the most remarkable example I’ve found is Tony Wood, who can literally write anything. He’s had cuts by everybody from Petra to ZOEgirl to Scott Krippayne to 4Him to the Booth Brothers. He’s worked with well-known CCM writers  and well-known southern gospel writers like Joel Lindsey and Jim Brady. Sometimes I wonder whether Christian music has ever fully realized how much it owes to Tony when I look at the sheer number of classic songs with his name on them. But in any case, whatever his denominational affiliation, it hasn’t stopped him from being versatile as all get-out. And he’s only one example. I could name others.
My conclusion is that ultimately, the place where doctrinal differences are most often going to manifest themselves is in the lyric. In general, there’s no similarly causal relationship between theology and musical style. It’s just going to be one giant mixed bag of sounds.

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  • I can see you have done your research! Thanks for sharing this insight.

  • It only took me a few years… the history of Christian music has been a hobby of mine for a while. 🙂

  • Lydia McGrew

    Two comments here, which I’ll separate as they make rather different points. First, a big denominational effect on the aesthetics of church music can be seen only in the _very_ big picture: The Protestant Reformation was responsible for the rise in congregational singing, which had not been part of the Catholic services previously. (One can find ancient hymns, but by the time of the Reformation these definitely were not part of the repertoire, and in any event would have been aesthetically entirely different from what developed in a much later place and time, post-Reformation.) So in a sense a very large percentage of what we now think of as Christian music–from hymns onward–would simply not exist if it had not been for the rise of Protestantism. I don’t say this at all in any anti-Catholic spirit but simply as an historical note. As time went on, Catholicism gradually did borrow the notion (and much of the music) of congregational singing from the Protestants so that now there is no really noticeable denominational distinction.
    How this relates to doctrine is of course a big question and one that it is easy to oversimplify on. But at the risk of oversimplifying one can argue that it had to do with the notion of the priesthood of all believers, the importance of having the people know the Scriptures, and all the various ways in which Protestantism de-emphasizes the distinction between the laity and the clergy. Also the Protestant dislike of monasticism (meaning that Protestants didn’t simply use Gregorian chant).
    So if one looks at the very large historical picture, one sees an influence of doctrine upon aesthetics, though it is such a huge influence (that is, bringing about the very existence of whole genres of Christian music) that it is somewhat difficult to say much more about it. I’m sure there are musicologists and historians who have written volumes on the subject. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

  • Lydia McGrew

    Second historical comment: Ideas influence aesthetics in church music when one considers not so much denominational differences but differences of opinion regarding the role of aesthetic beauty itself and of emotions in worship. One is likely to see this most in disagreements in a given time period _within_ a denomination rather than between denominations. An exception to that rule would be the differences between Puritans and Anglicans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Puritans believed that aesthetically pleasing music was wrong and eliminated all of the existing Anglican music when they took over after the English Civil War, as well as in the colonies they controlled. They replaced it with very, very plain Psalm chanting which was distinctly meant _not_ to be aesthetically enjoyable or in any way to engage the emotions. They also eliminated change-ringing on bells in England for the same reason.
    In the 19th century morning prayer in Anglican churches sometimes included Anglican chant. Anglican chant is very difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that it would not now be considered at all emotional! Nevertheless, Anthony Trollope’s novel _Barchester Towers_ contains a deliberately amusing rant by a low-church chaplain against the “meretricious” and over-aesthetic music of Morning Prayer in an Anglican cathedral, which supposedly interrupted the soul’s direct focus on God and the focus on the plain meaning of the words and songs.
    In our own time, traditionalists will prefer more calm music and will find a lot of lushness and emotion in musical style distracting. A very traditionalist Catholic, for example, will yearn for Gregorian chant, and a traditionalist Protestant will often prefer hymns in a service to praise and worship music.
    In all of these cases what we see are various attempts to work out the roles of the intellect and the emotions and aesthetic sensibilities in worship, with people taking different sides on concrete musical choices at a given time as well as across time. Nowadays these differences of opinion are unlikely to show up as specifically denominational differences, since they do not now usually concern denomination per se. Hence, I suppose one might even hesitate to call such matters _doctrinal_ issues, though they do certainly involve relating ideas to aesthetic decisions.

  • anthony

    Your last paragraph has the answer. People are going to listen to what they want.

  • mary

    You and DMB did come to the same conclusion, too funny!
    As far as the music goes, maybe the difference is most noticeable in the beat. SG maybe slower than a liberal or contemporary church and a Catholic song maybe slower than the SG (somewhat like a Gregorian chant).

  • JJ

    Tony Wood is a brilliant writer, and it’s great that you noticed his wide range of cuts. He’s been up for GMA/Dove songwriter of the year, and for good reason. But if you keep looking, you’ll find even more writers who aren’t locked into certain genres.

  • Yeah, that’s why I said there were more I could name. I believe our own Joel Lindsey has had some CCM cuts too. He wrote Point of Grace’s “Yes I Believe” if I’m not mistaken.

  • Right, that’s an easy way to notice differences. But the question is where those differences originate. Is it a matter of tradition or principle?
    I do think that even though “doctrine” may not be quite the right word, there is a sense in which one could have a principled objection to loud, screamy music in church. There are people, including me, who feel that there’s something not appropriate and right about using what should be a sanctuary of worship to make incoherent noise.

  • Steve240

    You might find the following blogs of interest about C.J. Mahaney and the group he leads, Sovereign Grace Ministries:
    They tell another side. Hope this helps.

  • I let your comment go through, but I would discourage my readers from spending a whole lot of time at the websites you linked to. Bluntly put, I would find them more interesting if I could decipher what in the blue blazes they’re talking about. After some browsing of the blogs and other writings related to them, particularly a personal blog by some woman who decided to chronicle her “experience” at a Sovereign Grace church, I can’t seem to find much more than an overwhelming amount of jumbled bitterness and hatred. Perhaps I am simply missing the point, but just sayin’…

  • I have now looked into the Sovereign Grace tangle further. There do indeed appear to be some deep problems there, although I don’t have the time to examine all that’s available. The fact that C. J. Mahaney is temporarily stepping down could mean many things, but from the information on this website, it’s looking very messy:
    That’s hundreds of pages of info which I have no intention of wading through. I can only draw the general conclusion that if somebody high in Sovereign Grace’s authority structure, who personally knows and works with other leaders, believes there are serious problems… then that’s some evidence that there really are serious problems.

  • I am glad with the latest revelation you see my point.
    There are a lot of pages to go through.
    One of the worst revelations in these documents that I have read is where C.J. Mahaney blackmailed Larry Tomczak who was a former co leader of the group. Mahaney did this 14 years ago. Shocking especially when Mahaney wrote a book on humility.
    Hopefully someone will go through these documents and start listing the more egregious errors of C.J. Mahaney and SGM Leadership. I am sure that someone will do that.

  • As I said, it appears to be a big mess, and I don’t have the time to invest into making some kind of final judgment. As for the individual cases of church attenders who have had bad experiences, those seem to be a mixed bag. On one hand, there are some disturbing stories. On the other hand, I’ve found at least one person who’s just plain emotionally unstable.
    But it seems like the leadership does have things to deal with, and I hope it gradually gets resolved over time. Meanwhile, I’m not going to stop mentioning their music and songs on my site, if that’s what you were trying to get me to do. So far I haven’t found anything damning about Bob Kauflin or their other songwriters, so I’m not going to worry about it.

  • Just realize that Bob Kauflin apparently was aware of Mahaney’s sin and did nothing to have it addressed just like the other top leaders of the group.